Exit Interview: Mediabistro Founder Laurel Touby

IMG_0196.jpgAnyone who comes to mediabistro.com for media news, job postings or classes has Laurel Touby to thank. She started the company in 1994 as a series of media mixers, which led to the founding of a Web site in 1996 — before the dotcom bubble burst. Over the years, Touby navigated uncharted territory as a digital entrepreneur and Internet pioneer, obtaining funding from venture capitalists and eventually selling the company just over two years ago.

When she sold her baby to Jupitermedia (now WebMediaBrands) for $23 million in July 2007, Touby signed a two-year contract. When that ran out a couple of months ago, she became a contractor for the company. Although she stayed involved in the day to day of mediabistro.com, she also started planning her getaway with her husband, BusinessWeek media columnist Jon Fine.

Earlier this month, the couple announced something big: a six-month sabbatical that they plan to spend traveling the globe, visiting foreign countries, blogging and — not surprisingly if you know these two — doing a little work here and there. But not too much. That’s not the point after all.

“I just feel like I’ve really gone balls to the wall for so many years and I just wanted a break, a real serious break, so I could come back fresh and renewed with new ideas and a new vision from this travel around the world,” Touby said. “Who knows what that vision will be.”

We couldn’t resist asking Touby a few parting questions as she headed out the door after 15 years at Mediabistro. In this exit interview of sorts — conducted via phone as Touby and Fine explored the Piedmont region in Italy one week after leaving New York — Touby opened up about her proudest moments, her regrets and her plans for the future.

“I have some ideas,” she said of her future plans. “But nothing has gelled yet.”

FishbowlNY: Why did you decide to take this sabbatical?

Laurel Touby: I’ve been looking forward to taking an extended break because I haven’t taken a real vacation since I started the company in 1994. I really have been going full speed ahead, always worried, always kind of logged in at home. Even if I was away from the office or “on vacation,” I was always doing work constantly just like anyone who is tethered electronically to their job. Only this was my responsibility and I felt very much like it was a child in many ways. You feel this maternal feeling towards this company that you’ve started, especially as a woman. And especially as a woman with no other children.

FBNY: Looking back over the last 15 years, what things are you most proud of?

LT: I think the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that we’ve outlasted almost every other Internet company that started at the same time that we did. When you look back at the hundreds or thousands of Internet companies that were around when we started in 1994, there’s not many of them left. There was Nerve and AOL, but The Knot wasn’t there, Google wasn’t there, YouTube didn’t exist. I wish you could take a snapshot of the Web and see what was there at the time and what is still there. There’s not a lot that’s survived. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of. And not only did we survive, but we kept growing. We’ve grown incredibly since then, and we’ve become more established. Now journalists at The New York Times know of us. I remember feeling so frustrated only three or four years ago because I would run into a journalist at the New York Times and they had never heard of us. Now they all know us. That’s another thing to be proud of. Journalists across the country know about us, and they love us. Many, many people get their training from our workshops and their news from our newsfeed.

FBNY: You talk about Mediabistro as if its a child. Any pangs of guilt leaving it behind now or selling it two years ago?

LT: No, not really. I always thought of myself as sort of an adoptive parent, because when I got funding for the company in 1996 — I got funding from VCs, who were pretty serious investors — they said to me, “Are you sure you can do what it takes? One day you may not be CEO, you may have to sell it, you may have to go public and let someone else run it and it may become a huge thing that you aren’t capable of running.” In the back of my head, I always thought of that happening. I treated it like a custodial relationship, like I was taking care of something as it grows until it’s bigger than me. I prepared myself emotionally for that day. And that’s what happened. It outgrew me. This thing is a monster.

And I learned that I’m not interested in running a multimillion dollar company. I love startups, I love the challenge of startups. I’m more of a startup CEO than a maintenance CEO. I’m a highly entrepreneurial CEO.

FBNY: Have you made any plans for after your sabbatical? Are you planning to return to Mediabistro? Will you be writing a book about your travels?

LT: Mediabistro and I have not parted ways completely. I still have a place there when I come back and I’m still considered a part of a staff, even though I’m on sabbatical officially. When I come back I’ll probably go in two days a week. My husband and I have started a blog, CultureTripping.com, and I’m considering this trip a palate cleanser between courses.

I do have a book in me. A lot of people want to know how to do this and how to make it successful and how to get the word out. People are constantly asking me for personal advice or one-on-one help, and I’ve thought for a long time that if I just write it in a book it will be very helpful for entrepreneurs.

FBNY: It’s actually pretty surprising that you haven’t already written a book about your experiences.

LT: I have been approached about writing a book before. The agents and the book publishers themselves have been saying it’s a no-brainer. But I haven’t yielded to the pressure because I didn’t want any deadlines for awhile. My whole life has been one big deadline, one quarter to another, meeting numbers, beating numbers. For the next few months I want to just chill. But when I get back that is one of the things that I am going to do — pitch a book idea to one of the publishers that has approached me. And I’m in such a lucky position to have publishers approach me.

FBNY: What is your plan for the next few months? Where are you going to travel?

LT: We’re purposely keeping it really wide open. We’re being true to the mission, which is exploration of the world and of ourselves, being open to creativity, open to new experiences and maintaining the ability to move quickly. If someone says, “Meet me in so and so, there is this great event happening,” we can get there. We’re really into wine and food, so that is guiding us. Right now, it’s harvest season in Italy and Italians really know how to relax. That was the reason we wanted to come to Italy. China is next because my friend is in China and he says October is one of the only bearable months there. After that, in December we’re going to South America. We’re also going to a bunch of media conferences, like the Monaco Media Forum in November and the DLD Conference in Munich in January. Jon is going to be covering Davos for BusinessWeek, so I’m going to tag along. We’re not totally not working, but we’re doing some work while we travel.

FBNY: Do you ever see yourself starting up another company?

LT: Everyone says your first startup is only your first startup, just like with motherhood everyone thinks that you should have more than one child. I have some ideas, but nothing has gelled yet and I think I’ll be pretty busy when I get back with the book and with Mediabistro. I also do consulting with small startups so I’m helping other people start their babies up. Right now it’s just through informal arrangements and they offer me stock in their companies in return for free time. But if I go after this in serious way, I can start a real business and make money.

FBNY: Do you have any regrets?

LT: I have very few minor regrets, like giving away stock early on during the life of the company without valuing it very highly. There was one consultant that I worked with in the early days who promised me all kinds of help and in exchange I gave him stock. In the end, when we sold, that stock was worth tens of thousands of dollars and I’m really regretful that I gave it away and that I didn’t demand that he do the work he promised. So, there are a couple that are monetary that I regret, but overall I feel we had a really successful company and still do.

FBNY: With that in mind, how do you approach taking stock from those startups that you are consulting with?

LT: I’m very careful about taking any stock unless I can be helpful. I tell them to wait until I have actually done something and then give it to me. I’m so cautious about taking other peoples’ stuff and really delivering on my promises. With me, people were pretty much rapacious. There was this one guy I wrote to right before I sold the company. I told him that he hadn’t helped the company and I had employees who I would rather give his shares to. And he wrote back, “No, I’m keeping my stock.” I will never forgive that person. I’m sorry, I hold a grudge.

Read more about Touby and Fine’s travels on their blog.

(Photo by Jon Fine)